In Time for Halloween, A Round Up of Some “Scary” Employers

October 26, 2015 by Julie A. Uebler, Esq.

I would like to think there is a decreasing need to protect employees from the awful ways in which their employers treat them. Unfortunately, when I read about some of the employment cases I see reported from around the country, I realize how scary some employers can be. You can’t make this stuff up. In time for Halloween, I am sharing news about some of the scariest I have seen so far this year.

Sexual Harassment and Retaliation – Rape and Sexual Assault Treated as a Condition of Employment

In February 2012, Morena Farms, a produce growing and packing operation in Southern Florida, fired Ligia Martinez shortly after she escaped a supervisor’s attempted rape. The next day, Martinez went to the local sheriff’s office with two of her co-workers who had been sexually assaulted, and made a complaint. Martinez then met with an attorney at Florida Legal Services, who helped the women file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In June 2014, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Moreno Farms, on behalf of five women who alleged they were sexually assaulted by the owner’s two sons and a male supervisor, and then fired for complaining about it. According to the complaint, the male managers regularly subjected to female employees, many of whom were undocumented migrant workers, to sexual assault that included touching, groping, and, for several of the women, rape. By the time the EEOC filed suit against Moreno Farms, the company had virtually disappeared. Following a default judgment against Moreno Farms in January 2015, a jury returned a verdict against it for over $17 million in September, although the judgment may never be executed. No criminal charges were ever filed against the Moreno brothers or the supervisor involved in the sexual assaults. Apparently, none of the managers accused of assault or rape in the 41 EEOC cases alleging sexual abuse at farms that made it to court between 1998 and 2013 had been criminally charged.

Gender Identity – Manager Asked New Employee “What Are You?”

At Summerford Nursing Home in Alabama, Jessi Dye arrived for her first day of work and training for a role as a certified nurse’s assistant. Part of the way through the day, according to a complaint filed with the EEOC, the nursing home manager called her into his office to ask about the discrepancy between the gender reflected on her driver’s license and the gender she presents. According to the complaint, the manager asked “What are you?” After Dye explained that she was born male and in the process of transitioning to female, the manager asked her “What am I supposed to do with you?” The manager then allegedly told her to get her things and leave. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which was representing Dye, recently announced a settlement that included an undisclosed monetary payment to Dye, and the nursing home’s agreement to implement a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to conduct related training.

Employer’s Ultimatum – Reimburse the Money Stolen During Armed Robbery or You’re Fired

Marissa Holcomb worked as a manager at a Popeyes fried chicken restaurant in Houston until she was fired in April. Holcomb, then pregnant and a mother of three, was on duty when a man held her at gunpoint, and demanded that she empty the cash register, which she did. The franchise owner, Amin Dhanani, told Holcomb that she had to pay back the $400 that was stolen or be fired, supposedly because she had left too much money in the cash register against company policy. Holcomb refused, and Dhanani fired her. When the local news reported on the story, the CEO of the Popeyes corporate office issued a statement apologizing for the franchisee’s actions, and offering Holcomb her job back.

Retaliation – Nurse Fired for Safety Complaints

According to a wrongful termination lawsuit, Linda Boly, a nurse in Portland, Oregon, worked for Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center for 34 years with a clean record. When her employer started setting quotas and limits on the time nurses spent on certain procedures in order to save costs, Boly complained to her managers about the risks to patient care. Boly was then written up for failing to meet the productivity quotas, and for working off the clock to complete chart work at the end of the day. At the same time, Boly alleged, Legacy was laying off staff, and then rewarding managers with substantial bonuses for staying within budget. Boly was later fired for poor nursing. In September, a jury awarded Boly more than $3 million for terminating her in retaliation for safety complaints.

Pregnancy Discrimination – “Too Big” To Wait Tables?

In March, the EEOC filed suit against Noodles Asian Bistro, Inc., an Asian restaurant in Tennessee, for allegedly firing two servers because of their pregnancies. The EEOC alleged that the restaurant fired the two pregnant servers after it decided they were “too big” to wait tables. The case was settled in June pursuant to a court-approved Consent Decree.

Wage Theft – Forcing Employees to Clock in Using Fake Names?

This summer, prosecutors in New York filed charges against a Papa John’s franchise ownerfor the third time in a year for violating minimum wage and overtime laws. Apparently, BMY Foods, the most recent franchise owner to be charged, paid his employees the same regular rate of pay for all hours worked, even though they worked many more than 40 hours per week. To disguise the wage payment violations, according to the complaint, the franchise owner required employees to clock in under fictitious names when they reach 35 or 40 hours in a week. The employer then allegedly made cash payments to its employees under the fake names to conceal the scheme.

Gender-Based Job Classifications – Staffing Company Categorized Jobs as “Men’s Work” or “Women’s Work

I know there was a time when jobs were regularly advertised as for men or for women. I thought such job listings were all in the past. Apparently not. According to a lawsuit filed by the EEOC in Chicago, Source One Staffing, Inc. categorized jobs as “men’s work” or “women’s work” and assigned employees accordingly; assigned female employees to employers with a known hostile work environment for women; and retaliated against female employees who reported a supervisor’s sexual harassment, among other allegations. The staffing company settled the case in May for $800,000 and a Consent Decree without any admission of wrongdoing.

The Honorable Mention – Fired While Sleeping

In the wee hours of an August morning, 400 employees of Zirtual, a virtual-assistant company, received their virtual pink slip. The employees received notice that the company ceased its operations in an e-mail at 1:34 am, but received no communication about the status of their paychecks, benefits, or severance pay. Zirtual now faces legal claims for violation of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) for its failure to provide 60 days advance notice of the closing.

Julie A. Uebler, Partner | Employment Law